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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

He began with the Letters of Aristaenetus


Yet

once more we can banish, with a joyful and quiet mind, a crowd of idle fancies and disputes, apparently but not really affecting our subjects. The myth of a direct Spanish origin for _Gil Blas_ is almost as easily dispersible by the clear sun of criticism as the exaggeration of the debt of the smaller book to Guevara. On the other hand, the _general_ filiation of Lesage on his Spanish predecessors is undeniable, and not worth even shading off and toning down. A man is not ashamed of having good fathers and grandfathers, whose property he now enjoys, before him in life; and why should he be in literature?

[Sidenote: Peculiarity of his work generally.]

Lesage's work, in fiction and out of it, is considerable in bulk, but it is affected (to what extent disadvantageously different judges may judge differently) by some of the peculiarities of the time which have been already mentioned, and by some which have not. It is partly original, partly mere translation, and partly also a mixture of the strangest kind. Further, its composition took place in a way difficult to adjust to later ideas. Lesage was not, like Marivaux, a professed and shameless "_un_finisher," but he took a great deal of time to finish his work.[310] He was not an early-writing author; and when he did begin, he showed something of that same strange need of a suggestion, a "send-off," or whatever anybody likes to call it, which appears even in his

greatest work. He began with the _Letters_ of Aristaenetus, which, though perhaps they have been abused more than they deserve by people who have never read them, and would never have heard of them if it had not been for Alain Rene, are certainly not the things that most scholars, with the whole range of Greek literature before them to choose from, would have selected. His second venture was almost worse than his first; for there _are_ some prettinesses in Aristaenetus, and except for the one famous passage enshrined by Pope in the _Essay on Criticism_, there is, I believe,[311] nothing good in the continuation of _Don Quixote_ by the so-called Avellaneda. But at any rate this job, which is attributed to the suggestion of the Abbe de Lyonne, "put" Lesage on Spanish, and never did fitter seed fall on more fertile soil.

[Sidenote: And its variety.]

Longinus would, I think, have liked _Gil Blas_, and indeed Lesage, very much. You might kill ten asses, of the tallest Poitou standard in size and the purest Zoilus or Momus sub-variety in breed, under you while going through his "faults." He translates; he borrows; he "plagiarises" about as much as is possible for anybody who is not a mere dullard to do. Of set plot there is nothing in his work, whether you take the two famous pieces, or the major adaptations like _Estevanille Gonzales_ and _Guzman d'Alfarache_, or the lesser things, more Lucianic than anything else, such as the _Cheminees de Madrid_[312] and the _Journee des Parques_ and the _Valise Trouvee_. "He worked for his living" (as M. Anatole France long ago began a paper about him which is not quite the best of its very admirable author's work), and though the pot never boiled quite so merrily as the cook deserved, the fact of the pot-boiling makes itself constantly felt. _Les chaines de l'esclavage_ must have cut deep into his soul, and the result of the cutting is evident enough in his work. But the vital marks on that work are such as many perfectly free men, who have wished to take literature as a mistress only, have never been able to impress on theirs. He died full of years, but scarcely of the honours due to him, failing in power, and after a life[313] of very little luck, except as regards possession of a wife who seems to have been beautiful in youth and amiable always, with at least one son who observed the Fifth Commandment to the utmost. But he lives among the immortals, and there are few names in our present history which are of more importance to it than his.


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